Weekly L.A. County COVID deaths top summer surge

Weekly COVID-19 deaths in Los Angeles County are higher than at any point during the summer surge, illustrating the persistent toll the pandemic continues to exact amid concerns that cases could surge again this winter.

Over the weeklong period ending Wednesday, the nation’s most populous county recorded 147 deaths — up 37% from the prior week’s tally of 107. Since Oct. 2, there have been 875 COVID-19 deaths reported countywide.

L.A. County’s COVID death toll number in the last week is nearly as high as that for all of California from flu in the past two and a half months. Since Oct. 2, 160 flu-related deaths have been reported statewide, including 31 in L.A. County.

The latest COVID-19 fatalities exceed all weekly counts from the summer Omicron surge, which peaked at 122 deaths for the seven-day period ending Aug. 6. It also was the deadliest week since late March, when the county was emerging from the initial winter Omicron wave. During last winter’s peak, the week ending Feb. 9, L.A. County recorded 513 COVID-19 fatalities.

“It’s distressing to see that number be slightly higher at this point in the winter season than it was last year,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a recent briefing. “And it just again indicates, for some people, this remains a very deadly disease.”

Many officials and experts point out that L.A. County — and the country as a whole — is better positioned to weather a winter wave this year given the widespread availability of vaccines and access to effective therapeutics.

But the continued deaths illustrate that the pandemic is not over. And while coronavirus transmission has recently flattened, county officials remain concerned about a renewed surge following Christmas, a development that historically has triggered corresponding rises in deaths a few weeks later.

The risk of heightened transmission is also not borne equally — especially in a county as large and diverse as L.A.

“Our data tells us that those dying from COVID-related illnesses are likely more vulnerable due to advanced age, compromised immune systems or lack of access to health-affirming resources,” Ferrer said last week.

The death count, she continued, is “a clear sign that the impact of COVID-19 is still being felt across communities today.”

“The best way to mitigate these trends is to use the knowledge we have gained and the tools we can access,” she said.

L.A. County coronavirus cases are no longer sharply increasing, after doubling during a short span after Thanksgiving.

For the week ending Wednesday, L.A. County reported an average of 2,646 cases a day, a 13% decline from the prior week. On a per capita basis, that’s 183 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. A rate of 100 or more is considered high.

L.A. County’s latest rate is still triple the 64 cases a week for every 100,000 residents that was reported in mid-October.

Coronavirus cases across California also remain elevated. For the week ending Dec. 13, California recorded 170 cases a week for every 100,000 residents — nearly triple the rate from mid-October.

Officials caution that those tallies are likely a significant undercount because of the widespread use of at-home rapid tests, the results of which are not reliably reported to authorities. Nationally, there have been estimates that infection rates could be five times the level of what’s been reported.

Other metrics paint a more promising picture. The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized countywide has stabilized. As of Wednesday, 1,256 such patients were admitted in L.A. County — down a bit from two weeks prior.

That census — which includes both those hospitalized for COVID-19 and those who test positive after seeking care for some other reason — is still more than three times higher than it was in late October.

The California COVID Assessment Tool, published by the state Department of Public Health, estimates that the county’s effective transmission rate as of Monday was 0.87.

While that figure fluctuates daily, it’s been under 1.0 for more than a week. A rate below that mark means each infected individual is transmitting the virus to fewer than one person, on average, and indicates the virus’ spread is decreasing.

But officials remain concerned that travel and gatherings over the winter holiday season could reverse that trend line and renew stress on hospitals.

That’s an uneasy proposition, given autumn’s strong resurgence of other respiratory viruses — namely flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Flu remains at high levels in California. Though activity is starting to decline in some areas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s unclear how the remainder of the season will play out.

This year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst in the last decade, UC San Francisco infectious diseases expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong said at a campus town hall last week.

“COVID-19 has disrupted the normal cadence of the [other] viruses. So it’s really unpredictable what will happen with flu,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of winter left. Most times, flu peaks in January and February. Last year, we know that it had a very long tail and went all the way through summer, with a much lower level.”

It’s not too late to get a flu shot if you haven’t already, Chin-Hong said. Nationwide, since October, there have been an estimated 9,300 flu deaths and about 28,000 reported COVID-19 deaths.

“Flu hospitalizations, particularly amongst the elderly, is expected to increase further. And that’s because the type of flu circulating right now, H3N2, is particularly notorious for causing senior deaths,” Chin-Hong said. “We’ve had very poor uptake of vaccines for flu.”

In better news, there is growing confidence that the worst of RSV is now past.

“RSV, nationally, looks like it has clearly peaked and is on its way down,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a recent briefing. “There are still places that have very high levels of RSV … but nationally, there’s no question in my mind RSV is heading down.”

Orange County this week terminated its almost two-month-old public health emergency related to RSV. Officials said that decision stemmed from federal action to expand resources to fight the virus, not local epidemiological trends.

The cancellation “is not an indication that there is a reduction in cases of infection or spread of respiratory disease,” Orange County Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said in a statement. “It indicates only that additional resources and support are now available.”

“RSV and flu cases continue to impact our pediatric hospital capacity,” she said. “This adjustment … from our federal partners helps address local needs caused by the spread of non-COVID-19 illnesses, including RSV and the flu, and to address recent increased COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are further straining our healthcare and hospital systems.”

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